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Image Truth / Story Truth

On Friday, October 16, 2015, the Tow Center hosted Image Truth/Story Truth, a conference by Nina Berman and Gary Knight, in collaboration with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

The conference explored the ubiquity of the image in the digital age, and allowed participants from different disciplines and professions to come together and discuss the norms and ethics around photojournalism today.

The program can be viewed here.

Nina Berman, professor at Columbia Journalism School wrote about the conference:

When talking about photojournalism ethics, the conversation tends to focus on the integrity of the digital image and the rules governing Photoshop manipulation. Photojournalists are prohibited from adding or deleting objects or people from their pictures, or combining two pictures together and passing it off as one moment. Those who break these conventions are dismissed from employment. The degree of acceptable toning and use of filters to enhance contrast and color varies widely by publication.

The Image Truth/Story Truth conference aimed to broaden the debate around ethics and direct it away from pixels and post processing, towards representation, context and commissioning.

Are photojournalists creating images that repeat certain visual tropes and perpetuate social stereotypes? Do contests such as World Press Photo and the Pulitzer Prize, reinforce those stereotypes by consistently awarding work that focuses on the dramatic individuation of suffering and the search for the iconic moment?

Is it time to dispense with the catchwords of yesterday that focus on humanizing subjects (as though they were ever less than human), or giving voice to the voiceless, language steeped in hierarchy and outdated notions of narrative privilege?

Given the complexity of contemporary conflict, should pictures do more than provoke emotional reactions? Is it enough to simply wait for disasters to happen and then make gorgeous images of those disasters, as one panelist asked? Can a deeper form of documentation and witnessing take place that looks less to the dramatic moment, and more to causes and context? Can new technologies help or distract? Is a new visual language required?

And finally, what is the purpose of photojournalism? Is it to record? Or to advocate? Is it illustrative or investigative? Detached or collaborative? Can work produced within a corporate commercial context be anything but conformist? Is work commissioned by NGOs more true or just a different kind of sell?

Image Truth/Story Truth – an intentionally ambitious title – predictably presented no conclusions. Rather, the purpose was to put highly accomplished people together who don’t normally converse, industry leaders with academics, curators and critics, and see what develops.

-Nina Berman

The day was comprised of five panels, ranging in topic from a deep-dive into the ethics around the World Press Photo Awards to a panel that explored the narratives that develop around particular images in a socio-political context. Video of the five panels can be viewed below:

Panel 1: Introduction and Contests and Ethics: The World Press Photo Award

In 2015, 22% of the work submitted to the World Press Photo awards, an annual competition, was disqualified because of what the jury deemed to be excessive digital manipulation.  More than the manipulation itself, the jury was aghast that many of the photographers seemed to think the level of manipulation they introduced to their photographs was acceptable.  In 2014, only 8% of submissions had been excluded from the contest because of manipulation.

The dramatic increase from the year before prompted widespread discussion in the photojournalism community about the changes in norms and ethics brought upon by digital processes.  And so, it was fitting that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation were the setting for an event that brought together photojournalists, photo editors, industry professionals and academics to discuss these changes and propose some solutions.

The conference Image Truth | Story Truth organized by Nina Berman, professor of photojournalism at Columbia Journalism School, sought to probe the following questions:

How can we define ethical behavior in digital photography? What can the industry to do to create norms and values around ethics in photojournalism?  How can photojournalism be richer and deeper in providing context and creating impact?  How can the industry set parameters that distinguish photography as an open medium from photojournalism – with a purpose and association to documentary evidence?  

Many photojournalists had expressed frustration that although World Press Photo screens its finalists for manipulations and disqualifies some work, the organization fails to provide concrete examples of  the sorts of manipulations they deem excessive.  The stigma of being accused of manipulation is so high that not one photographer had agreed to share rejected images.  The conference was the first time a degree of transparency was brought to the judging process at World Press.

Lars Boering, Managing Director of World Press Photo Foundation, and David Campbell, Secretary to the World Press Photo Contest jury, began the day with a presentation that included simulations of specific changes in images that were deemed overly manipulated. Some of these changes included removing small details from photos, and adding information to create a more visually pleasing image. Campbell and Boering said that there was one instance of excessive post-processing, but most of the time the objection involved adding or subtracting content from images rather than color corrections.

“Materially some of these changes seem small, but ethically they are significant,” said Campbell. “Digital images have to be processed by virtue of their existence. So processing isn’t the problem.”

The judges worried that if small details are altered, viewers will doubt the credibility of the image, and by virtue of that, cast doubt upon the profession as a whole. Campbell emphasized that usually manipulations are not intended to deceive.    Rather, photographers are often trying to enhance their image in some way or another, but take this impulse a step too far.  The ease of digital manipulation allows space for the public to doubt the credibility all images. “We don’t want the first question about an image to always be ‘Is this fake?’” he said.  Photojournalism in particular is meant to refer to real world events.  

“Of course photography is an interpretive event, “ said Campbell. “But there are limits to how much interpretation you can have when you want the image to serve as documentation or evidence.”  The implications for this on human rights work – for example war crimes tribunals – where images can serve as essential documentary evidence – are immense.  

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the World Press Photo Competition, and Campbell and Boering cited the changing face of photojournalism in the digital age as a main reason for their new Code of Ethics for the World Press Photo Awards.

“In the past, we had no rules about staging. Some of our rules were not clear anymore. We had no code of ethics,” said Boering. “How do you judge work like that when you don’t have anything to fall back to when discussing this?…It’s important for the industry at large to be clear about these issues.”

Their new stipulations include requiring photographers to submit the RAW file along with the retouched image, having technical experts give educational presentations to the jury, encouraging more detailed captions, and a creating a fact-checking team who can ensure the photographer didn’t “intentionally contribute to, or alter, the scene, the picture by reenacting or staging events.”

Although both Campbell and Boering were careful to remind the audience that the rules are written for contest entrants in particular, they conceded that this code could help set industry standards and influence media at large.  

That acknowledgment led into the next panel, a response from Sean Elliot and Gary Knight, moderated by John Edwin Mason, which asked some of the big picture questions that went beyond technical rules about photo manipulation.

Their response dealt with questions about the way commissioning editors choose what to focus on. How do these choices combined with the way photographers are crafting their images create a particular world view?  What is the role of contests like World Press in determining what style of photojournalism is popular and emulated over time? These are the ethics of choosing what to photograph.

There was also some concern about the way subjects are portrayed and how publishing their images may affect them.   Are there are standards of ethics in this relationship between photographer and subject – does dissemination through social platforms and virality alter this?  Sometimes beautiful images are disseminated widely, but separate from their context and underlying story. Are we chasing commercially palatable photos over complex issues and is that ethical? What is the duty of a journalist who wants to create visually pleasing images but also inform about complex realities?

“Are the beautiful photos the ones that most accurately and fairly represent the world in which we live?” Elliot asked. Knight agreed that in contests especially, beautiful work can be privileged to work that is accurate.  “When you’re looking at entries, you’re elevating imagery that is high quality, but is often stripped of context,” he said. “You end up with beautiful photography, very impactful photography that wins awards but doesn’t necessarily represent the world correctly.”

When contests do consider the subject matter of the photos as well as the aesthetics, this is still problematic as photographers replicate the imagery that World Press Photo or Pulitzer Prizes set as a benchmark. This can lead to redundancy in images and a sort of constriction of diversity of perspective.  The panelists raised a number of ethical questions here, including: are you inadvertently creating hierarchies and elevating one social justice issue over another? Is it problematic when a portrait of one individual begins to represent an entire gender, ethnicity, or social class?  Are we ”othering’ our subjects?

“The issue of ethics isn’t in Photoshop, it’s what you do everyday when you step out the door with your camera.” said Elliot

Both Eliot and Knight shared the view that it can be hard to take pictures that are fair and representative if a photographer starts the story with too many preconceived notions. Often, an editor will prefer to publish something that meets expectations and matches already existing narratives.

Eliot spoke at length about this problem – , “has already decided that the photo they want to see is such-and-such, and if you don’t come back with that photo, you have a challenge. Ethically, am I just ignoring my editor? Am I going to at least look for what my editor wants? Are you ready to come back and say,’That didn’t exist, I’m sorry.’? And then you have to hope your editor is on-board with your ethics on that matter.”

In all, the panel was a refreshingly candid discussion about professional dynamics that are rarely broached.

Panel 3: Politics of the Image and the Constructed Event

Panel 4: The Press and Photography

Panel 5: What is a Photograph?  The Future of Photography and the Professional Image-Maker